Monday, November 9, 2015

THE MARTIAN Is Sci-Fi With Smarts


- Legendary director Ridley Scott is perhaps best known for helming films that transfix with their arresting visuals, but that have a mythic, larger-than-life scope to their storytelling. With a few exceptions (Thelma & Louise comes to mind), his characters are more iconic than they are humane. Not that there's anything wrong with that - Scott ranks among my all-time favorite film directors, and his best movies (Blade Runner, Alien, Gladiator) are high on my list of best-movies-ever. But THE MARTIAN still feels like a departure - a movie that is at once huge, epic sci-fi but also very grounded, humane, and funny. Many of Scott's iconic films have a detached coldness to them. The Martian, in contrast, overflows with warmth. Give credit to the book from which the film is adapted, written by Andy Weir. But also give credit to the film's screenplay by Drew Goddard. Goddard, the Joss Whedon disciple who gave us smart and funny films like Cabin in the Woods, knocks this one out of the park. He finds both the epicness in the story and the humanity - and he differentiates THE MARTIAN from other recent space-exploration movies, like Gravity and Interstellar, by imbuing it with a sharp sense of humor and wit. What's more, whereas those other space epics ultimately veered into the more philosophical, spiritual, and cosmic, THE MARTIAN stays grounded in reality and science - presenting a story that has its share of far-fetched cinematic movie-moments, but that never strays from its pro-science message. In an age when we are often inundated - in pop-culture and politics - with figures obsessed with a view of humanity that puts supreme faith in the will of a higher power, it's refreshing (and timely) to get a sci-fi film that is so wholly about the can-do willpower and brainpower that each of us, innately, possesses.

Matt Damon plays astronaut Mark Watney, and it's one of the best performances of the actor's career to date. It may not be the type of performance that wins Oscars, but it's pure movie-star acting at its finest. Damon makes Watney into a supremely likable guy, a guy who, when he finds himself marooned on Mars after a mission-gone-wrong, smirks, rolls up his sleeves, and determines to "science the $%&#" out of his dire-seeming situation. Watney is in many ways an everyman - but a very smart and capable everyman. He's a botanist who has ideas about how to create sustainable food that can ensure his survival for a longer-than-anticipated period of time. He's a doer. He's the kind of guy whose ingenuity makes the higher-ups at NASA - and his fellow crew members - willing to risk a hell of a lot to get him home.

In many ways, the conversations back on earth, at NASA, are as interesting and tension-filled as Watney's struggle to survive on Mars. It helps that the supporting cast here is absolutely stacked, bringing just the right combo of gravitas and good-natured humor to the proceedings. Jeff Daniels is great as a NASA director with the weight of the world on his shoulders - answerable to his bosses and to the public and press, but also keen to bring his man home. Chiwetel Ejiofor is another NASA official who pushes on Daniels to do everything possible to save Watney. Sean Bean is also in the mix. Did I say gravitas? There are also really great small-but-pivotal roles for people like Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis, and Benedict Wong - each helping to round out the NASA tech team. Similarly great is the supporting cast that fills out Mark's space-flight crew - who leaves him stranded on Mars after believing him to have died in a violent storm. Jessica Chastain is one of the absolute best actors working today - and she kills it as Melissa Lewis, the ship's captain and the leader of the effort to bring Mark back. Chastain - now apparently the go-to woman to help you get un-lost in space - really kicks ass here. She takes a role that could have been un-memorable and makes it one of the movie's best. Michael Pena has brought the funny to a number of recent blockbusters (see also: Ant-Man), and he's an unsung hero here as a member of Chastain's crew. Kate Mara is also rock-solid, as are Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie.

Ridley Scott is one of the best-ever at doing eye-popping sci-fi visuals, and he doesn't disappoint here. Often, his filmmaking seems a little more restrained and grounded to match the script's lighter tone. But Scott cranks it up to eleven when called upon. He delivers sweeping Martian vistas, claustrophobic shuttle interiors, and a rip-roaring, edge-of-your-seat outer-space finale that truly demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. And yet, he doesn't let those killer visuals detract from or overwhelm the movie's smaller and more intimate moments. This is a film that gets almost as much oomph from crop-growing and message-decoding as it does from zero-gravity space rescues.

Scott is a filmmaker whose sci-fi films I associate with darkness. Alien showed us absolute terror in a dystopian and derelict future. Blade Runner showed us a rain-soaked Frankenstein-monster nightmare of technology gone wrong. But THE MARTIAN distinguishes itself by being an old-fashioned, gung-ho movie about the power of human ingenuity - one that also happens to be one of the most exciting, nail-biting, and visually-stunning films of the year so far. It's spectacle with smarts, sci-fi that actually embraces science.

My Grade: A-

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